The weight on the shoulders of Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu must be immense.
With figure skating fans holding their breath to see if Hanyu will deliver a performance at the 2022 Winter Olympics that could earn him a third consecutive gold – a first for the sport in almost a century – the stakes are higher than ever.
But perhaps the biggest pressure for the two-time world champion comes from within.
Over a long-spanning career, the 27-year-old has amassed a trove of medals, but it is the childhood dream of landing the quadruple Axel that has kept him pushing ahead.
With a determination bordering on obsession, Hanyu has said he would sometimes spend all but 15 minutes of a two-hour practice session on the quad Axel, or “4A”, a taxing regimen that would include dozens of falls on the hard ice, not to mention the risk of injury.
“I need to understand it,” he has said of the jump that no skater has ever landed successfully in competition.
“I want to get to that place where I can confidently feel that this is the complete, perfectly formed version of Yuzuru Hanyu. And part of that is the 4A.”
After missing the Grand Prix series with a sprained ankle this season, Hanyu, whom Chinese fans affectionately call “Youzi” – Mandarin for the yuzu citrus fruit – included the jump at the Japanese championships in December but it fell short of qualifying as a 4A.
For all of its difficulty, the 4A is a high-risk-low-reward jump. Its base value of 12.50 is the highest of the six figure skating jumps but just one point more than the quadruple Lutz.
Anything more than a quarter-revolution of under-rotation would earn a downgrade – as Hanyu did in December – to a triple Axel worth just 8.00 points. Grade of execution (GOE) points may be deducted for other imperfections.
If Hanyu wanted to win, conventional wisdom says, he would go quad-to-quad on the five other jumps against his closest rival, American Nathan Chen, and compete on overall execution.
“If you do a (quad) flip and a Lutz, you’d get a crazy high score,” Chiba University researcher Nobuhiko Yoshioka and a judge on the figure skating circuit.
“But Hanyu really wants to jump the 4A.”
If Hanyu wins, he will match Swede Gillis Grafstrom’s 94-year record of three consecutive Olympic golds in figure skating.
Hanyu’s training at home has been closed to media and as of Saturday, three days before he competes, he had yet to show up for practice at the Games venue.
His only public appearance has been in a video message on the Japan Skating Federation’s Twitter feed in which he promises the 4A , ending his message by holding up three fingers – a nod to his quest for a third Olympic gold.
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Chen, for his part, called Hanyu an unrivalled icon who was constantly pushing the sport forward.
“It’s really rare to be able to see a skater maintain this level of excellence across multiple generations,” he told reporters last week, saying he was eager to see Hanyu in person.
“This is his third Olympics, and he’s nowhere near peaking. It’s just incredible to see his continuous growth.”
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